What we believe, and how we express what we believe is a complicated business for members of all religious groups, and Christians are not excluded. We only have to look at the number of different commentaries that have been published on the Gospels of Jesus, or the range of different ways that Christians talk about him, and worship him, and live out their lives in his name, to illustrate the complexities of believing.
In times when living out our faith seems too confusing we might be tempted to look back to an early version of the Church in which everything was simple and clear and straightforward. Unfortunately for all of us, no such Church has ever existed.
From the earliest days of the Church there have been disagreements and controversies as Christians have sought to work out what it means to live for Jesus in a world where to do so is difficult. Throughout the history of the Church there have been dominant views about what Christians should believe and how they should live their lives, that every now and again have been challenged by other views which have emerged.
On each of those many occasions, the Church has, through prayer and study and debate, then come to a decision about whether or not the inherited understanding should remain, or whether a new understanding now more accurately describes what the Spirit is saying.
In a sense we are all here because that process was normal in the life of the Church right from the very beginning. If the Church had not had the freedom to change, and grow then it would have remained (as it had begun) as a movement within Judaism. But because of the experiences in the earliest communities of Jesus – when Gentiles (people like you and me) also wanted to make a commitment to him through baptism – because of those experiences, the first followers of Jesus who had assumed that God was only interested in the Jews , had to come to a fuller understanding which also included the Gentiles, the rest of humanity, as well. You can read those debates as they unfold in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.
Throughout history this striving to be able to more accurately describe all that we believe about God has been an ongoing experience of the life of the Church. When people have got this right they have been called saints, when they have been judged to have got this wrong they were called heretics. In our own life times this striving to express in the ministry and worship of the Church what we understand about God has led to radical changes in our liturgy, and in the way that ministry is carried out.
Just think of the changes in this Church over the last fifty years, and the changes in our Diocese as well – the place of women in ministry, the way that we participate in the liturgy, indeed the way that we express the liturgy together. So if we have in our minds as Christians the kind of idea that what the Church believes, and how it lives out those beliefs, is somehow unchanging, then we have missed the witness of the whole of Christian history and tradition which has never been static but has been an ongoing process of development and growth, as Christians have sought to be faithful to God, and to express their faithfulness ever more accurately.
The problem for you and me, as members of the Church, is that we do not always know whether the changes that are being made are a further step forwards or a divergence side-ways. And in this regard we are in the good company of Christians down through the ages who were in a similar situation as well. The same Holy Spirit who was present with them is present with us now, but that does not always mean that we have easy or certain answers.
The truth is that there are some Christians who are willing to give any new idea a go, whether it is a good idea or not. And there are other Christians who are never willing to accept change at any level – about anything. And there are other Christians who are willing to test something new, to see if it is from God, but only after other people have done it first. In this respect, those of us who gather as the Church are simply reflections of the rest of the population.
So what do we do, within the Church, when we are faced with the challenge of deciding about change? Well, whatever else we do we begin with prayer. As Anglicans we then try to hold together both what we know from Scripture, and from the tradition of the Church and from our experience of living as Christians today, as well. Then, like generations of Christians before us, we take a risk – because that is what happens whenever we make a decision. Together as the Church we decide either that what we have done so far is what we want to continue to do next, or we decide that another way of proceeding will be better than simply doing what we have done before all over again. The risk on the one hand is that we may be mistaken, and the path may not be the right one; the risk on the other hand is that we may miss out on what God has in store for us.
A few weeks ago your Parish Council made the decision that after much thought and discussion, and watching carefully to see what was going on in other parishes, that they want to commend the Diocesan vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission to you, the members of the congregation. But the decision as to whether we should adopt that vision, and re-orientate our life as a Church towards it, will not be made by the Parish Council it will be made by you, the members of the congregation.
This vision of the Church will be new to some of us, and yet familiar to others of us. So I want to summarise it for you in six interconnected points, so that we are all on the page.
Firstly, we believe that every baptised Christian has been gifted by God to share in the ministry within and from this Church at East Maitland.
Secondly, we believe that each one of us has been gifted differently, so that together there are sufficient gifts in this local Church for what God is calling that local Church to be and to do.
Thirdly, we believe that there therefore needs to be a way of assisting the members of the Church here at East Maitland to discern each other’s gifts so that those gifts can be used in ministry and mission.
Fourthly, we believe that whilst we all have gifts to share in the tasks of ministry, some members of this Church have the gifts and the skills necessary to be leaders here. There therefore needs to be a structure in our Church which enables leaders to lead us towards the goals which the local congregation has set for itself, not only in the administration and maintenance of the Church, but in its new and developing ministries as well. That is why alongside the group that is responsible for our finances and buildings each Parish that is committed to this vision is developing a Parish Ministry Team of discerned lay and ordained leaders with special leadership roles. A Parish Ministry Team here will be led and supervised and guided by Fr Michael, whose role in this process will be critical. The team won’t replace or side-line him, it will depend upon him for wisdom and guidance. We have seen something of what that team may be like through the great work of the informal team which has been gathered around Fr Michael this year, working with him.
Fifthly, we believe that because we are all on a journey together, there needs to be opportunities for ongoing training which is specific to our ministries. For the small group of leaders in a Parish Ministry Team that will be focused around the Bishop’s Certificate programme, and for the rest of us there will be other opportunities (largely within the Parish) for us to continue to develop our skills for ministry.
Sixthly, given that we as Anglicans value the particular ministries which are reserved to the ordained, if there is a person, or people, who have the particular gifts necessary for ordination within the life of the Church, then we would need to find ways for them to be recognised by us here, and by the Church at large in order for them to be ordained to minister here as deacons or priests under Fr Michael’s supervision within the Parish Ministry Team.
In a few Sundays time everyone attending worship will be invited to vote as to whether this is the direction that we want to follow for our future. It is a direction that – at its heart – is focused on local mission and local discipleship. The sheet that you have been gives you details about how that vote will work, the questions that you will be asked, and the opportunity for you to meet with Fr Michael in a parish meeting on a Sunday beforehand in order to explore these ideas further.
If the majority of people believe that God is not calling us to proceed in this way, or if people believe that God is calling us down this path but are not willing to be personally committed to being involved, then we will not proceed. If sufficient members of the congregations affirm both of these statements we will proceed as a Parish community together under the leadership of Fr Michael and with the support of the resources of the Diocese. The decision will be made by the congregations here, and by no one else. We will be voting on the vision for our future, voting about our commitment to local mission, voting about how we understand leadership, voting about whether to make best use of the resources and partnerships available in our Diocese.
As the world around us waits eagerly for further news of a royal wedding, with journalists keen to be the first to provide us with every detail about William and Kate’s plans for the future, we celebrate today the feast of Christ the King. Our king does not sit on a splendid throne, he hangs on a cross.
There is no jewelled crown here, instead he wears a crown of thorns. He does this to show us and the whole world how much God loves each one of us. The pain of the cross is always mingled – for Christians – with the joy of the resurrection, and the good news that each one of us can share, in hope, in the eternal life of God’s love in Jesus.
The vision of ‘Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission’ seeks to help us to order our lives around the reality that each one of us is called to be a part of the organised work of sharing this good news with others. In every generation Christians have had to make decisions in the face of change. We are no different today. Like those who have gone before us the responsibility is ours to seek to discern where God is calling us to be. Through the leadership of your Parish Council that is what we will be doing in the coming weeks as we seek to serve our Jesus Christ our King, as we await the fullness of his kingdom.